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If you or someone you care for has a diagnosis of dementia, you will probably have questions about what it means, what to do and who can help – both in the short term and in planning for the future.

The most important thing to understand is that help is available. Whether you're living in your own home or in an aged care home, there are aged care services that specialise in helping people with dementia.

You will find some basic information below to direct you towards resources that may help answer your questions.

What is dementia?

There are a number of different types of dementia. Dementia is a condition (a group of related symptoms) that is associated with an ongoing decline of the brain and its abilities, including:

  • memory
  • thinking
  • language
  • understanding
  • judgement.

People with dementia may also become uninterested, have problems controlling their emotions or behave inappropriately in social situations. Aspects of their personality may change or they may see or hear things that other people do not.

Usually dementia occurs in people who are aged 65 or over. The older you get, the more likely you are to develop this condition. Around one in four people living in Australia over 85 years have dementia.

Visit the Australian Government's healthdirect website for a more detailed overview of dementia.

What are the most common types of dementia?

The most common type of dementia is Alzheimer's disease. It accounts for between 50% and 70% of all types of dementia. Alzheimer's disease is a degenerative condition that affects the brain. As brain cells die, the substance of the brain shrinks causing certain information to no longer be recalled or understood.

Vascular dementia is the second most common form of dementia. The condition is related to problems with the circulation of blood to the brain.

Other types of dementia include:

  • Dementia with Lewy bodies
  • Fronto Temporal Lobar Degeneration
  • Dementia in other diseases such as Parkinson's disease, Huntington's disease and Cruezfeldt-Jakob disease
  • AIDS-related dementia.

Visit the Dementia Australia website to read more about the different types of dementia.

What are the early symptoms and warning signs?

Early symptoms of dementia can vary a great deal from person to person and may not be immediately obvious. Usually people first notice memory problems such as difficulty remembering recent events.

If you notice problems like these or are worried that you or someone you care for may have dementia, visit your doctor as soon as possible, as early diagnosis is important. If the symptoms are caused by dementia, an early diagnosis will help you to access appropriate care, support and information. The Dementia Australia website outlines steps you can take to find out more about dementia, including advice on observing warning signs and preparing a list of concerns to take to your doctor.

When is memory loss more likely to be associated with dementia?

Many people worry that forgetting things might indicate dementia. It is normal to occasionally forget appointments or a friend's phone number, but memory loss associated with dementia will most likely be persistent and progressive, not just occasional.

The Dementia Australia website provides more information about memory loss, including advice that may help you to distinguish between normal memory loss and memory loss associated with dementia, as well as tips for keeping your memory sharp.

What about behavioural changes?

Dementia can influence a person's behaviour and can include behaviour changes such as wandering, depression, anxious or agitated states, aggression, hallucinations and false ideas, and loss of inhibition.

The Dementia Australia website provides information about what you might expect in terms of behavioural changes and advice on how to manage these situations.

What services can help?

If you're living at home and need some extra help, there are a range of aged care services that can be delivered through an Australian Government-subsidised Home Care Package. These services may include help with day-to-day personal care activities such as dressing or grooming, household tasks such as cleaning and washing, or even home maintenance such as changing light bulbs or keeping your lawn mowed.

Some home care service providers may also receive an additional Dementia Supplement to help you access the services you need to stay in your own home. Find out more about eligibility to access a Home Care Package.

Or, you and your carer and family may feel that you would be better supported in an aged care home. While all aged care homes subsidised by the Australian Government may cater for the needs of people with dementia, there are many homes that provide specialised services and staff to support these needs. A Dementia Supplement is also provided to aged care homes to support people living in aged care homes with severe behavioural and psychological symptoms of dementia and mental illness.

How can my family and carer help?

It's important for family, friends and carers to understand that there are many ways they can help. It's a good idea to talk to them about your diagnosis and any concerns you have, as they may be able to help you access and organise services as needed and plan ahead. Read more about caring for someone with dementia.

What about financial and legal decisions?

As dementia progresses, the ability to make legal and financial decisions decreases. If possible, it can be a good idea to get advice and plan ahead while you are still able to make decisions and participate in the discussion.

Planning ahead means that you should consider:

Some documents, such as your will, are only legal if they are made while you understand what has been written, the extent of the property involved, and the claims of dependants and other family members. A public trustee, a solicitor or a law society can provide advice and assistance to make a will.

Similarly, you may like to meet with your bank manager, an accredited financial adviser or a solicitor to work out who will help you to manage your money if needed, and what arrangements they may need to make. Read more about different places you can go for financial guidance.

Resources and support

It's worth knowing that there are also lots of services available that offer education and support for people with dementia, as well as for those who care for someone with dementia. You can find a list of good places to start along with more information on the web page about caring for someone with dementia.

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Last reviewed: 30 June, 2015.